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New frontiers for Hungarian science

Researchers at the ELI-ALPS Institute in Szeged, HungaryCredit: NKFIH

Hungary has spent much of the last decade developing its scientific infrastructure: establishing new facilities and connecting diverse realms of science. This strategy paid unexpected dividends recently during an archaeological heist. Curators at the Hajdúsági Múzeum in Hajdúböszörmény had spotted a metal detectorist online, brazenly hawking a potentially stolen Bronze Age pail, or situla, for several thousand euros. Once the police had seized the situla, the museum needed to confirm its provenance, so they turned to Hungary’s Institute for Nuclear Research, Atomki, in Debrecen. Working with Atomki scientists, they used its new ion beam setup to safely analyse the situla’s chemical composition, and confirmed the archaeologists’ suspicions that it had been filched from a famous hoard buried in the Hajdúböszörmény region.

István Szabó, vice president for science and international affairs at the NRDIO (left) and Zsolt Fülöp, chair of Hungary’s National Research Infrastructure Committee.Credit: NKFIH

There are many such success stories showcasing Hungary’s newly revamped research capabilities, says Zsolt Fülöp, chair of Hungary’s National Research Infrastructure Committee. Atomki is one of several well-known science institutions in Hungary, the most advanced of which is the world-class ELI Attosecond Light Pulse Source (see ‘A laser-sharp focus on cutting-edge research’). Complementing the institutions are networks that foster collaboration and enable access to these facilities for researchers in other institutions or countries.

One example is the heritage science network Iperion HS, a consortium of 24 partners from 23 European countries, which connects the archaeology community to resources like Atomki and the Budapest Neutron Centre for nondestructive analysis of artefacts.

Having achieved its goals for scientific infrastructure development, Hungary now seeks to boost its human resources by attracting talented researchers from around the world. Its National Research, Development and Innovation Office (NRDIO) has issued a call for applications for its Forefront Research Excellence Programme, which offers US$ 1 million of funding over 5 years for researchers from any country and any discipline. “This is an excellence-driven call,” says Fülöp. “We welcome researchers who want to continue an established theme of research, but also encourage those who want to leverage the international, interdisciplinary environment in Hungary to do something new.”

The NRDIO has recently changed the way it awards these funds. Forefront is open to all researchers who have either successfully concluded a project funded by the European Research Council, or who have had a proposal awarded a Seal of Excellence — a quality label, given to project proposals for the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding scheme that are approved but not funded, due to lack of money. “The decision-making process about who should get a grant from Hungary is basically under the umbrella of the European Commission’s Seal of Excellence concept,” says István Szabó, vice president for science and international affairs at the NRDIO. Excellent scientists facing a similar situation with other respected grants bodies (e.g. the Wellcome Trust, or the National Institutes of Health) are also invited to apply. And, in line with the EC’s programme, there is no restriction on research fields. “Researchers can conduct their research as they wish,” he says. “All topics are covered, from physics to social sciences.” Researchers have until 28 February, 2021 to apply.

The drive behind this scheme is Hungary’s ambition to become one of the top five countries in Europe by 2030. “It’s a government-level vision, not just for science, technology and innovation, but for the whole economy and society as well,” says Szabó. “We aim to become one of the ‘strong innovators’ in Europe.” The 2020 EU Innovation Scoreboard currently rates Hungary as a ‘moderate innovator’; the government’s aim is to reach the next tier within the decade.

Hungarian policymakers are recognizing the importance of international collaboration in catalysing the country’s science base, says Szabó. Hungary already has schemes to encourage its young researchers to undertake part of their training abroad, and the country is a member of several international research infrastructures, in all fields of science from the European Social Survey to CERN. The connectivity between the Hungarian and international research infrastructures means it is possible for those interested in applied science to contribute to these large-scale projects through commercial contributions, in their building and upgrade phases, as well as through their science.

Horizon 2020’s successor, Horizon Europe is also in the sights of the government, which aims to significantly raise Hungary’s participation. “We would like to see more scientists collaborating internationally, to raise the quality of their activities,” says Szabó. Horizon Europe has prioritized a set of research and innovation areas, or ‘missions’, and the Hungarian government has adopted these as themes for 17 new national laboratories. These are networks of researchers and institutes that focus on specific topics, such as quantum informatics, tumour biology, autonomous driving systems and artificial intelligence. The aim is to unite Hungary’s research efforts to make them more efficient and increase their visibility internationally. With this in mind, the programme is being advised by an international committee. “We are putting Hungary on the international landscape in a very visible way,” says Szabó.

To apply for Forefront funding, please visit


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